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"Reliably Safe"

The history of one problematic dam in Oregon teaches how not to manage risk

Douglas Larson

Willow%20CreekClick to Enlarge ImageAlarms first sounded on September 18, 1988, when headlines in the Eugene Register-Guard, Oregon's second-largest newspaper, blared: "Decaying dam holds tide of trouble: It threatens to wash away town of 1,500." The article was about a structure the Army Corps of Engineers had built across Willow Creek (a tributary of the Columbia River) six years earlier, near the rural community of Heppner, using what was then a novel construction technique. The story ignited a political firestorm.

A few townspeople were frightfully aware of what such a disaster was like. As young children, they had survived the catastrophic Heppner flood of 1903, which took 251 lives. As fear turned to anger, some residents saw themselves as guinea pigs. Editorials in the local newspaper bristled with accusations. One read: "They were looking for a sparsely settled area to experiment with this new type of dam, and now we're stuck with it."

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